Taking it one move at a time. In conversation with International Master and Trainer Vishal Sareen.
International Master Vishal Sareen is one of India's best chess trainers, currently. He has the honor of producing multiple Arjuna Awardees in the sport, including the likes of Grandmasters Abhijeet Gupta and Parimarjan Negi and International Master Tania Sachdev. He has worked with so many notable players that one cannot resist asking him about his journey in the game of sixty four squares.
1. How did you begin playing chess and what do you remember from your youth?
I think I picked up my bits and pieces from our street side where some elderly gentlemen used to play the game very passionately. I picked up some knowledge thanks to Mr. G B Joshi,who is like an elder brother, but the biggest help came from the current AICF Secretary ,Mr. Bharat Singh Chauhan, who used to travel with me for the National Championships, and he was also with me when I first represented the country in Under 16 World Championship. Later on, I went to Jamshedpur, where Mr. Varugeese Koshy offered me to stay with him and study the game. That was really a golden period as our neighbours were stalwarts like Dibyendu Barua and Neeraj Kumar Mishra. I definitely learnt a lot of things but could probably never use them to become a better player!
2. You won a number of tournaments and became an International Master. Why didn't you think of taking the next step of becoming a Grandmaster?
Like every chess player, I also had this secret dream of becoming a Grandmaster and doing much more. In my early days of training young players I was still motivated but one fine day I was paired with Soumya (Swaminathan) and this was I think in 2005/6. This young girl came up to me asked me my rating! Which prompted me to ask why and she said would make a WIM norm if she beats me. And I was like, how can she beat me? I still remember being motivated enough to prepare hard that evening. Next day we sat down to play and I eventually lost a keenly contested game, which I thought I was winning or clear better for most part. What triggered next was soul searching because I was still training youngsters in the same tournament and it was the last round. I kept thinking whether it was right to think about my own game while training and also about what I wanted to do further- train or play. The next tournament started two days later, but I had made up my mind. After the second round I withdrew and after that I just quit playing.Not that I haven’t played at all. Time to time, I do play some events, but it's more to keep myself in shape and very rarely.
3. How did you transition yourself into a professional trainer? Can you tell us about the beginning and what potential did you see in it?
It just happened. Started off as something I liked to do. Became a passion over the years and now it’s the only thing I do. It was not a planned career, but I guess this was my destiny. I had a job in LIC ,which I gave up around ten years back so that I could concentrate full time on the game. It was a hard decision but when you have your wife standing by you and prompting you to do things you want to, the temptation could not be resisted.
4. What were the challenges as a coach? How did you feel on not sitting on the board and competing yourself?
Well, I figured many things as a player. I was never a good player, kind of average, who could compete but was not good enough. My peers made it to the Indian teams while I watched. I guess being a spoiled youth did not help me gather enough motivation. All those things I could not do which I felt should have been done was the starting point. And slowly things picked up momentum. I always felt great pride when the students started doing well. I would say I was really lucky to get the very talented bunch of players.
5. You are the trainer of multiple Arjuna Awardees. The journey must have been remarkable but tough. Can you share your greatest moments?
There are many such moments. Moments that bring a lump in your throat. Abhijeet’s World Junior Championship (this was in 2008), where Parimarjan finished second, Parimarjan’s GM title, Tania winning the Asian, and later when all three of them got bestowed with the Arjuna Award. Sahaj’s GM norms. That was a ‘sigh’ moment when he made his final norm.(This was back in 2012)
6. What is the best part about coaching and what makes you continue doing it after so many years in the profession? Simply put, what keeps you going?
The twinkles in the eyes that I see when they succeed. The smiling faces - Nothing beats them. Those hugs – priceless.
7. What do you think is the best part about being a trainer? What suggestions/advice would you give to the upcoming trainers?
This is a very responsible job. When a parent decides you to be the trainer of their child they have huge faith which leads to immense expectations. To do your job honestly is the most important thing. I believe and follow this. Many of my students did not take up chess as a career option but wherever they are, they are doing exceedingly well as the grind has helped them resolve everything they face.
8. You were recently awarded the FST title by FIDE and the Excellence in Chess Award by the University of Texas, Dallas. Can you tell us a bit more about these two prestigious honors?
The FST(FIDE Senior Trainer) is the highest title given to coaches, and I am thankful to AICF for recommending my name. From Dallas, it was for prompting students to take up computer science, which I think is the future.
9. You have been associated with a number of chess ventures. Can you share with us some of the details of these ventures and your idea behind starting each?
I do everything chess ,and I dream about our country attaining 100% chess literacy one day in my lifetime. We have a small program under which we are teaching chess to anyone who wishes to learn. This will expand in sometime when we get support.
The Delhi Dynamite team is a team that we put together for the prestigious Prochess league. In just two years it’s the place everyone is in. We are grateful to Harikrishna for agreeing to play in our team this year. We currently have two academies operating and we will soon be launching two more centres. This is under the banner Let’s Chess.
10. Can you elaborate on some of your cherished moments from these ventures?
Delhi Dynamite had many such moments. We play as a team. Normally sitting at home but one fine day we were playing from China and the matches started way past midnight. Abhijeet has been our mainstay and he took charge that day too. Played some fine games well in to the wee hours! Sahaj drew with Magnus Carlsen last year and this year Lalith Babu beat Carlsen. The platform gives good opportunities to young players.
11. Captain and Coach of the Indian's Women Team. How did you join this team and what was your experience of working with the best women players of our country?
Our women team is amongst the finest in the world. I learnt a lot from this association.
12. Your student and the Grandmaster Abhijeet Gupta has won the Commonwealth Championship so many times that he has been dubbed as Mr. Commonwealth. How do you feel about it and can you share with us some memories of your association with him? Can you also tell us about the World Junior in 2008 that he won?
We have been working for a long time now and Abhijeet is more like family and a friend. He is involved in some of our training ventures too now. We started working when he was around 13 years old and that seems like only yesterday. I think the Mr. Commonwealth title is a bit overrated. It’s just another event for him and incidentally he does well in this event.
I remember a story from the world juniors that he won. He is a kind of never-say-die guy and back then it was no different. However, after the eighth round of the 2008 world junior, he came out and asked where is the next year’s championship? I think we were taking a small walk and were a bit pensive as it was not going as we had expected. He had just become a Grandmaster the same year and we were both hoping for a better show. Can't remember the exact words, but I said something like this, “OK, so the next world junior is in country ‘X’. Let’s play the next five rounds one by one, and then we can think about it." And those were the five best games. He won them all one by one! Parimarjan scored 4.5 in those five games and came second.
13. You have trained numerous Grandmasters and titled players in your more than two-decade long training career. Can you tell us how you foresee talent and what is it that is required for today's children to become titled players?
There is no fixed recipe,I feel. But doing the right things for a period of time helps the players grow. Talent is also a bit overrated. It’s good to have talent, but unless it's complimented with hard work and dedication not much comes out of it. I prefer 5% talent and 95% hard-work ,instead of someone supremely talented who refuses to work.
14. Can you give some advice for the parents who want their children to start playing chess and for those whose children have already been playing for a while and want to turn PRO?
To make every child of our country play and learn chess is my dream. No one needs my advocacy on this. Several researches over the years have proved that chess helps. If the parents are on the threshold of whether-or-not, it’s time to take stocks of several factors. Hard-work and Dedication. The child has it… keep going! Every day should end with what did I learn today, and then every night is peaceful.
15. You are a father of two girls. How do you balance your professional and personal life? Being a trainer takes up a huge amount of energy and time. So, what is it that keeps you going? Do you want your girls to also take up chess?
Never an easy balance. Although I try to be home when I can. We have our breaks 3-4 times a year for a few days. Movies, dinners are pretty common. They are great company of course. I tried making my daughters play and they took part in a few tournaments. One fine day my then eight year old left a note on my pillow urging me not to make them play tournaments and that they were willing to learn. That’s how it has been since.
16. Now, I come to the last part of the interview. This is my most favourite part. So, you need to answer these questions in a word or a sentence each and why.
Favourite Game- Chess – Cannot be anything else. A distant second is cricket.
Favourite Book- The Godfather – Why: Don Corleone and Luca Brasi and Michael!
Favourite Player(Past/Present)-Fischer, Anand. The two most complete players in my opinion.
Carlsen/Caruana- Carlsen, ye dil maange more!
Favourite Opening- 'Saemisch', many sweet victories – by the people I work with of course!
Hobbies apart from chess- Chess. Chess and finally reading a lot of fiction.
Rapid, Blitz, or Classical- Classical, this is where the term mind over matter comes in!
Favourite chess website-chessbase.com and their Indian version - Is there another chess website?
Favourite chess playing destination-Internet Chess club
Favourite memory- When I became a father.
Where do you see yourself ten years from now- making every single child play and reap benefits of chess.
Message to your fans-I don’t think I have fans… But to those who care:Thank you. To those who put up despite my several deficiencies: Thank you. And to those who remember me: Thank you.